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Why Connection Is The Key To Authenticity (And 11 Ways To Build Connection Yourself)

03/08/2017 12:50

As Theresa May repeatedly droned on about 'strong and stable leadership' during the UK's recent general election campaign, she was doing what all politicians and many business leaders are taught - pick a message and find every opportunity to repeat it. Even if people don't agree at first, at some unconscious level they will start to believe it.

Except that in this case the broken record technique really did sound as irritating as a broken record.
Contrast May's dry style with the way that Jeremy Corbyn elicited an appreciative laugh when he simply said 'because we're not going to do it,' when asked why abolishing the monarchy was not in the Labour Party manifesto.

Corbyn was able to connect with his audience because they felt he was being real. Even though Corbyn's policies don't appeal to many people (after all, he still lost the election) the feeling was that Corbyn had the momentum. The electorate felt the power of connection, translated that to authenticity and from there to votes.

What is Authenticity, anyway?

Connecting with others and a sense of authenticity are powerfully correlated. Intuitively this makes sense. If you are being authentic, people will connect, right?

Actually, the opposite is true. Behaviour that builds connection is what generates the sense of authenticity, even if the 'authentic' person does not normally behave this way.

Research shows that introverts who act in an extraverted manner at a party feel like they are showing their true self. People who saw themselves as careless or rude nonetheless felt more authentic when they were being considerate or polite.

It was not 'being themselves' that generated authenticity, but building connection.

So, no wonder May's decision not to take part in debates before the election, or her unwillingness to meet victims of the Grenfell Tower fire generated such scorn. Her aloofness was the opposite of connection. Was she more interested in self-protection than in her electorate or standing with the Grenfell survivors?

To have any chance of succeeding as Prime Minister, May needs to go beyond her habitual diligent, back office control-freakery, into a way of operating that is deeply uncomfortable - listening and hearing the views and criticisms that will create better policy. In other words, she needs to go beyond just being herself.

Wanting to be heard

Human beings have a strong need to be heard and understood. When we are unheard, however, we react. Young people who felt they had been ignored by the Brexit vote and disadvantaged by tuition fees treated Corbyn as a rock star when he went on stage at Glastonbury. The Brexit vote itself was swung by disaffected voters who had felt ignored by the London-based middle-classes for decades.

And a New York based, spoilt brat of a billionaire was elected as US President because working class, mid-western Americans felt he heard and understood them, after years of being ignored, or worse, dismissed and mocked by the liberal elite.

The wave of right-wing parties gaining ground across Europe is a sign of people insisting they cannot be ignored. Though politics seems unpredictable, we have seen these patterns before. Here we are, less than ten years from a global financial crash, where people still feel worse off than they remember being not so long ago. These are the times that governments are overthrown. We've seen it in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolutions and the rise of the Nazi party. The results are not always bad - economic pressure was one of the factors that led to the ending of apartheid in South Africa - but it does always involve uncertainty and instability as people demand change.

The Need for Connection

What is true for countries is also true for individuals. We all need to have people who hear and understand us. We all need to feel trusted, accepted and loved. We can cope with not always getting our own way, if we feel that we have been heard and not ignored.

In fact, we can even cope with not being heard by everyone, if we have good quality relationships where we are heard. With relationships like this, we can say tough things to one another, as well as having fun and enjoying one another's company.

Unfortunately, outsiders often cope with being different, and the fear of rejection that comes with it, by hiding what they really think or feel. Separating ourselves in this way reinforces the very alienation we fear most. Interactions with others become either more shallow or more angry - like a Trump tweet but with fewer followers.

Brene Brown, researcher into shame, vulnerability and connection, has shown that it is the willingness to be vulnerable with others that builds connection and the very deep relationships that we crave. We are never the only one who has felt a certain way. However ashamed we are, we can immunise ourselves against the destructive effects of our negative feelings by finding people with whom we can be open with.

So, here are some ways to build connection, to build your own sense of authenticity and stop hiding who you are (even if you are not a politician!):

1. Make it fun. Even serious things don't have to be heavy. Do something you both enjoy - something that will make you laugh together.

2. Make it creative. Creativity allows us to express things in appealing ways that can be less confrontative and more emotive. Try painting, poetry, pottery with others.

3. Learn to listen and ask good questions. People connect to you if you let them express themselves first.

4. Empathise even if you don't agree. Remember, we all want to be understood, even if we don't always get our own way.

5. Assume you will succeed. Allow the possibility that an encounter might go better than you fear. My favourite bit in Winnie-the-Pooh is where Piglet says 'Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?' and is comforted when Pooh thinks carefully then says 'Supposing it didn't?'

6. Plan for failure. What is the worst that would happen, and what how would you cope if it did? Remember that the most painful conversations can often build the most intimacy if you are prepared to handle them sensitively.

7. Practice on smaller things before trying the biggest, hardest conversations. For example, say no to your kids before you say no to your boss (or perhaps that should be the other way round!)

8. Remember what you have in common. There is nobody in the world that you don't share some characteristic with. Start there.

9. Find a cheerleader to support you up front, go with you, or commiserate/celebrate afterwards, so you don't feel alone.

10. Pick your moment. If you are having a conversation you find hard, don't do it when you are angry or upset. Give yourself time to cool down and find another time and place that works better.

11. Don't give up. Not everyone will want to connect, but everyone can find someone that does.

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